By Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
Aug. 18, 2009 - When Afghans go to the polls to cast their votes Aug. 20, they'll see Afghans providing for their security, not U.S. or NATO forces. In a video news conference today from Kabul, Australian Defense Force Brig. Gen. Damien Cantwell, chief of the election task force for NATO's International Security Assistance Force, stressed that the Afghan security forces are completely in charge of planning and implementing security efforts for the elections.
"Afghan security forces have committed themselves fully across the country with the intent to provide all they can within their resource limitations in terms of manpower and other capabilities to ensure that the best possible security picture is able to be presented to the community," Cantwell told Pentagon reporters.
"It's very important for the Afghan national security forces to be seen by the Afghan people as the lead agency in execution of security for their elections," he continued. "After all, ISAF is, as the name suggests, a security assistance force, and we're here with the responsibilities to facilitate and enable their capabilities wherever possible. It's a very important step in the development of maturing security forces, and also, it reflects the will of the people."
Afghanistan's defense ministry has laid out plans for the Afghan National Police to provide direct security at an estimated 6,500 polling stations throughout the country. The Afghan army will be positioned in outlying areas as a contingent security force, while ISAF forces will maintain a "low profile but agile posture," standing by only as last resort, the general said.
Cantwell estimated that about 92,000 Afghan soldiers and 47,000 Afghan police will be working on election day. At least 15 million Afghans are registered to vote, he said, adding that he anticipates 85 to 95 percent of them will turn out. Taliban strongholds in southern and eastern Afghanistan, specifically in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, likely will see a smaller voter turnout, though recent successful operations there may have given Afghans in those areas new confidence to participate, he added.
"The biggest threat is in the minds of the people themselves," the general said. "That's where the real battle for confidence takes place."
Despite criticism for a lack of training and capability on part of Afghan security forces, Cantwell said, he is confident the forces are ready. He said he's personally impressed by their commitment to secure the elections, noting the army and police have participated in several rehearsals and exercises at regional and national levels.
ISAF officials recognize that Afghan security forces "have some way to develop and mature," he said. "However, it's interesting ... to see how enthusiastic they are to carry out their mission," he said. "They're very keen to do their very best for their people, and I've been very pleased to see that."
Still, Cantwell acknowledged that success won't come easily, as a recent wave of insurgent violence in Afghanistan's capital city can attest. Suicide bombings in Kabul just outside the gates of the ISAF headquarters today and Aug. 15 claimed the lives of three ISAF troops, several Afghan troops, United Nations members and several innocent civilians, ISAF officials reported.
"[The Taliban are] a very dangerous and adaptable enemy and one which is prepared to cause numerous civilian casualties in pursuing his own ideological or political goals," he said. "And that's why I think this election is a critical step forward for the Afghan people. Every vote cast by any Afghan in these elections is a personal statement against the Taliban and a rejection of the pretty sinister alternative future that they're offering to the people."
Afghanistan held its first post-Taliban national elections in 2005. But this year's will be the first independent elections coordinated by the Afghans. Forty-one candidates hope to become president, including the incumbent Hamid Karzai, who assumed his post as Afghanistan's 11th president in December 2004.